Global experts join together to learn about pandemic preparedness

August 2022 | Canadian Food Inspection Agency | by Naheda Sahtout, Ph.D. and Sara Dizzell, Secretariat of the Biosafety Level 4 Zoonotic Laboratory Network (BSL4ZNet)

Ever wonder what it might be like to put on an airtight suit and walk through the interlocking bioseal doors of Canada’s highest containment laboratory in Winnipeg? Behind its doors are some of the deadliest pathogens in the world – we’re talking about Ebola virus, Hendra virus, Nipah virus and more.

While only highly trained experts can actually enter the lab, we offered the next best thing: joining a global network of the experts who work in these labs at the 2022 Biosafety Level 4 Zoonotic Laboratory Network (BSL4ZNet) International Conference.

The 2022 BSL4ZNet International Conference

This year marked the 3rd annual international conference for the BSL4ZNet. The overarching theme was "Forging ahead stronger: Strengthening zoonotic disease preparedness". The conference consisted of a series of virtual sessions in September and October 2022:

  • SARS-CoV-2: then and now on Thursday, September 8, 2022
  • Emerging and re-emerging pathogens: current research, challenges and future opportunities on Thursday, September 15, 2022
  • Cutting-Edge Virtual Symposium on Coronaviruses with Disease-X Potential from September 27 to 30, 2022
  • Training world-class personnel in a post-pandemic era: competencies, culture and technological advancements on Thursday, October 6, 2022
  • Advances in biosafety, biosecurity and biosurveillance on Thursday, October 13, 2022

Presenters and participants included scientific experts and leading science professionals from government, academia, industry and in non-profit organizations, working in the areas of research, emerging and re-emerging bio-threats, laboratory management, biosafety and biosecurity, science diplomacy and policy. More information on each session, including keynote speakers and panelists, is available on the event website.

The BSL4ZNet explained

Still wondering what the BSL4ZNet is and does? Let’s start with its name. Biosafety level 4 (BSL4), often called containment level 4 (CL4) in Canada, refers to the level of precautions and safety measures required to contain biological agents in a lab.

BSL4 is the highest level, and facilities designated as BSL4 are equipped to study the most dangerous and infectious pathogens that can cause serious diseases in humans. The entire lab is like a sealed box within a building. They are carefully designed to control the environment inside, can withstand power failures and natural disasters, and are consistently tested to make sure all biosafety requirements are met. The scientists who work in these labs have to wear positive pressure suits with a dedicated breathing air supply fed by a hose. They enter the lab through an air lock, and must take chemical showers to decontaminate their suits any time they enter or leave.

The “Z” in BSL4ZNet is for “zoonotic”. Zoonotic diseases, or zoonoses, are illnesses that can spread between animals and people through harmful viruses, bacteria, parasites and fungi. They make up the majority of existing and emerging infectious diseases that threaten human health. Examples of zoonoses include rabies, avian influenza, Lyme disease, monkeypox, West Nile virus, Ebola virus disease, brucellosis and COVID-19.

“Net” is short for “network”, and represents the partnership between the animal and public health organizations from 5 countries (Canada, Australia, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the Unites States) that make up the BSL4ZNet. Each network organization works with national-level government BSL4 labs to address the threats of zoonotic diseases. After the Ebola outbreak in 2014-2016, it became very clear that these specialized labs around the world would benefit from collaboration, cooperation and knowledge exchange to strengthen preparedness and response to disease outbreaks. That’s why Dr. Primal Silva, Chief Science Operating Officer of the CFIA, worked with international colleagues to establish the BSL4ZNet in 2016. Today, BSL4ZNet partner organizations work closely together to train personnel, promote scientific collaboration and institutional cooperation, and ultimately help us all be better prepared for future outbreaks and pandemics.

The CFIA’s BSL4 facility

The Canadian Science Centre for Human and Animal Health (CSCHAH) in Winnipeg is the first facility in the world to co-house human and animal health BSL4 labs under one roof: the Public Health Agency of Canada's National Microbiology Laboratory (NML) and the CFIA's National Centre for Foreign Animal Disease (NCFAD).

CFIA scientists at the NCFAD are experts in the study and diagnosis of several animal diseases and zoonotic diseases. The lab is also a World Organisation for Animal Health (WOAH) reference laboratory for African swine fever and classical swine fever, highly pathogenic avian influenza and low pathogenic avian influenza in poultry, and foot-and-mouth disease. WOAH reference laboratories are internationally recognized for their expertise in the monitoring and control of animal diseases.

The NCFAD is also a reference centre for the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) with expertise in foot-and-mouth disease and other vesicular diseases of Central and South America.

A One Health approach

People interact with both wild and domesticated animals for many reasons, including as owners of pets and service animals, farmers, hunters, fishers and veterinarians. While our connections with animals are important and beneficial in many ways, they also result in many pathways of infection for zoonotic diseases. These pathways highlight the importance of a holistic approach to health for both animals and people, as well as to the environment we all share.

Recognizing the inter-connectedness between animals, people and the environment is the foundation of an approach to health-related issues known as One Health. At the CFIA, One Health underpins how issues like zoonotic diseases, food safety and food security, animal disease outbreaks, invasive species, antimicrobial resistance, environmental contamination and other threats are addressed.

To manage these complex and interconnected challenges, One Health requires a multi-disciplinary and collaborative approach with engagement at the local, national and global level. The BSL4ZNet is a shining example of the One Health approach in action. The network’s focus on zoonotic diseases bridges human and animal health and promotes strong relationships between international BSL4 facilities to help us all be better prepared to respond to emerging and evolving zoonotic disease threats.

Check out the CFIA website for more information on the BSL4ZNet and upcoming conferences.

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